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Debating Force Use in Syria: Humanitarian Justifications

Conflicting justification related to the use and non-use of force on humanitarian grounds in the case of Syria


International law has evolved to a great extent in the years since the Second World War, wherein certain principles of international law have gained the status of jus cogens, or peremptory principles of law. Protection of human rights is one of such principles to have gained the status of jus cogens.[1] This would mean that the principle of protection of human rights would be binding on all states and accordingly states as well as international organisations would be required to take action wherever such violations of human rights are seen. Such action is also mandated now under the principle of responsibility to protect. This is provided in the Outcome document of the World Summit 2005 and as per this principle, states have responsibility to protect its people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and the international community, “has the responsibility to use appropriate diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means, in accordance with Chapters VI and VIII of the Charter, to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity”.


However, the peremptory value of human rights and the nature of the responsibility to protect principle is often tested as is being done in Syria. Despite the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis, no intervention has as yet taken place in Syria. Security Council has been unable to take any action due to the conflicting views presented by Russia, which supports the Syrian government and claims that intervention in Syria would be unjustified use of force.

Research questions

The principle research questions involved in this research is:

Whether use of force on humanitarian grounds in Syria can be justified under the international law?

Does international law demand that action be taken in Syria by the international community as a response to the humanitarian crisis brought on by the Civil War?

Can Syria claim state sovereignty and applicability of principles of non-use of force and non-intervention to demand that no such humanitarian intervention take place in Syria?

Significance of the study

The Syrian crisis has escalated into a major humanitarian issue. This crisis has led to the displacement of millions of Syrians who have fled their homes. The human costs of the Civil War in Syria are immense. Statistics provide that the Civil War has led to the death of more than 150,000 people and apart from those who have fled their homes, the millions of Syrians trapped inside Syria need humanitarian assistance.[3] Both the Syrian government and the rebels as well as the Islamic State, have been involved in human rights violations. In light of these events and the international law, this study seeks to examine the applicability of international law in the Syrian situation. Does international law demand humanitarian intervention in Syria?

Proposed approach

The proposed approach to this research will consist of the following steps:

  • Literature review of relevant literature related to use of force on humanitarian grounds;
  • Identification of the relevant international treaties, Security Council resolutions and the General Assembly resolutions on use of force in Syria;
  • Analysis of the conflicting justifications related to use of force in Syria;
  • Analysis of the situation in Syria and application of theory to the Syrian crisis from the perspective of the law on use of force.


The research will be a secondary research with qualitative methods. This research will involve collection of data from current literature on the topic of use of force on humanitarian grounds, relevant treaties, resolutions of the UN Security Council and General Assembly. The judgements of the International Court of Justice, in so far as these pertain to the topic of research will also be studied. As this is a desk based research, the ethics of such research will be observed. Research will only be conducted from sources that are of high academic standing and will be properly cited.

Possible problems and how these will be overcome

Being a desk based research with a dependence on availability of literature, a possible problem or challenge in the research will be the identification and availability of the literature. However, this challenge can be overcome by use of electronic sources, such as databases. So where the library does not have a particular book or journal article recourse may be had by searching for such books or journal articles on online databases.


  • Bellamy AJ, Responsibility to protect (Polity, 2009).
  • Bianchi A, "Human rights and the magic of jus cogens." (2008) 19 (3) European journal of international law 491.
  • Carpenter TG, "Tangled web: The syrian civil war and its implications" (2013) 24 (1) Mediterranean Quarterly 1.
  • Chesterman S, Just war or just peace?: humanitarian intervention and international law (Oxford University Press 2001).
  • Evans G, "The responsibility to protect", in Responsibility to Protect (Palgrave Macmillan 2009).
  • Finnemore M, The purpose of intervention: changing beliefs about the use of force (Cornell University Press 2004).
  • Gray CD, International law and the use of force (Oxford University Press 2008).
  • Jenkins BM, "The Dynamics of Syria's Civil War." (2014).
  • Orford A, Reading humanitarian intervention: Human rights and the use of force in international law. Vol. 30 (Cambridge University Press 2003).

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